Ancient Athens: Social Structure & Political Organization

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

In this lesson, you will learn about the different levels of Athenian society and how these levels came to be. You will learn how changes in the economy led to changes in the military and the social structures of Athens.

Early Athens: Rule by the Wealthy

When you think of ancient Athens you probably think about togas, the Greek gods and goddesses, marble buildings, and maybe even democracy. But Ancient Athens wasn't always this way. From about 1000 B.C.E. until about 800 B.C.E., Athens was in a state of chaos that some historians refer to as the Greek Dark Ages. Invasions, warfare, and competition for resources disrupted life for many people living throughout the Greek world. By about 800 B.C.E., the chaos began to settle down and stability returned to the region.

During this period, Athens, like most ancient societies, was ruled by a small group of elites known as aristocrats. It is important to remember that aristocrats inherited their status by birth. These individuals controlled the few natural resources throughout the countryside surrounding the city of Athens. As the Dark Ages came to an end, some adventurous Athenians began to trade and colonize around the Black and Aegean Seas, looking for available resources. This trade was made easier by the invention of coins by a neighboring society known as Lydia. The Lydian coins and new land and resources led to major changes in military and society.

Military Reforms

Up until around the beginning of the 7th Century B.C.E., warfare in most Greek city states was centered around wealthy aristocrats. You can imagine the wealthy riding out to battle on horseback to meet their equals. These individuals were the only ones who could afford armor, weapons, and horses. They were supported by members of their families and a few other wealthy individuals. Some poorer individuals might also fight on the sides of these aristocrats, fighting on foot around the aristocratic leaders.

As the economy changed, so did warfare. Some particularly wealthy individuals figured out that they could arm lower classes of people to fight for them. These heavily armored foot soldiers were known as 'hoplites. Hoplites wore helmets and armor and carried heavy shields, but their most important weapon was a long spear. They marched together as a unit known as a phalanx rather than simply going at the enemy one-on-one. The spear was not thrown but instead was used to push or jab the enemy. Hoplite soldiers were organized in larger units than ever before, and these units depended on collective action. Soldiers had to work together for a common cause. These army units involved more and more people from broader ranges of society.

A Greek Hoplite Soldier in Armor

Creating a More Equal Society

The military was not the only element of society impacted by the changing economic situation of Athens. As more and more Athenians gained access to wealth and power, competition between these wealthy elites sometimes erupted into conflict, and by the year 594 B.C.E., Athens was on the brink of all out civil war. It was in this year that the Athenian leaders appointed a well-respected aristocrat to become the chief magistrate or leader of the city. His name was Solon.

Solon Makes Changes

To prevent civil war from erupting, the men who chose Solon gave him tremendous power to reform society. Solon knew that much of the trouble in Athens came from economic and political inequalities in society, but he also knew that he had to balance his changes so that he could keep the support of both the wealthy aristocrats and the lower members of society. One of his first major changes was to end the practice of debt slavery, a practice that allowed a wealthy person to own somebody who was indebted to them.

This decision to end debt slavery was a direct challenge to the influence of the aristocracy. To keep them from rebelling against this change, Solon restructured all of society, dividing the natural-born, male citizens of Athens into four classes based on their income. At the top were the pentakosiomedimnoi, or men whose yearly income equaled 500 or more measures of agricultural produce, for example, 500 bushels of grain. Below them were the hippeis or ''horsemen.'' These individuals contributed 300-500 measures of produce and were referred to as 'horsemen' because they served as the knights or cavalry in the army. The third level of society was the zeugitai meaning ''yoked men,'' a term referring to the fact that they owned oxen and produced at least 200 measures. Any citizen producing less than 200 measures was known as a theta or ''laborer.''

This Graphic organizer demonstrates the four layers of Greek Society

Effect of Solon's Changes

These divisions were about more than just economic output. The top three classes had access to the most important and influential positions in the government and in the army, while the thetas could never hold any public office. Can you imagine having your political rights restricted because of how much money you earned? This was the reality that many Athenians faced. Although it may seem unfair now, at the time these changes were widely accepted. All Athenian citizens had something to gain from these changes: every citizen had at least some voice in the government, all citizens were guaranteed freedom from slavery, and all citizens were guaranteed protections against legal oppression.

Further Changes Made by Cleistenes

Solon's changes reduced the divisions between social classes, but many Athenians still felt divided by old family or tribal differences. To change this reality, another influential Athenian leader made further changes. This leader's name was Cleistenes, and his changes helped move Athens even closer to becoming a democracy where all citizens have a say in what happens. Cleistenes tried to end old disputes between families by instead organizing the city into ten geographic regions. Each region chose a leader known as strategoi, or general. These men lead both military matters and governmental matters. By doing this, Cleistenes ended disputes while also respecting traditions, just as Solon had done with his reforms.

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